Cardinal George in his recent ad limina visit to Rome summed up the difficulty the bishops face here in America in the following way:
The Church’s mission is threatened internally by divisions which paralyze her ability to act forcefully and decisively.
On the left, the Church’s teachings on sexual morality and the nature of the ordained priesthood and that the Church herself are publicly opposed, as are the bishops who preach and defend these teachings.
On the right, the Church’s teachings might be accepted. But the bishops who do not govern exactly and to the last detail in the way expected, are publicly opposed.
The Church is thus an arena of ideological warfare, rather than a way of discipleship, shepherded by bishops. And so, the Church’s ability to evangelize is diminished. Cardinal Francis George, May 28 2011 Ad Limina Visit.
In other words, trying to lead Catholics is like herding cats. And our descent into ideology stabs unity in the heart and gravely wounds our ability to impact our culture in any real effective and unified way. Consider that there are as many as 70 million Catholics in the U.S. Were we really together on any one topic, we would be a force to reckoned with. But we are not, and are thus largely ineffective as a force for positive change.
And it is always easy to say “It’s that other slob who is responsible for the disunity.” But as Cardinal George notes, the bishop’s aren’t getting much support from any sector of the Church. [All emphases in original--E.M.]
As I said above, I don't have time to delve into this in quite the depth that I'd like to, but I do want to make just a few remarks:
1. I find it disturbing that Cdl. George would conflate actual disobedience to the Magisterium with quite possibly legitimate criticism of prudential matters including Church governance. To put it in the most extreme example possible, there is a huge difference between a congregation defying its pastor and "voting" to "ordain" a woman, and a congregation complaining to the bishop because the pastor refused to listen to highly qualified lay people, hired substandard contractors to build a parish hall, and then openly chastised those who pointed out that almost immediately after the construction the flooring was already failing and certain other construction issues were arising--for their "disobedience" in criticizing the pastor (that second situation actually happened at a parish I'm aware of). One's legitimate obedience to and respect for one's pastor does not require one to suspend disbelief and pretend that one's pastor is a skilled general contractor when that is obviously not the case! And to see these sorts of complaints as exactly the same thing as dissent about abortion, homosexual acts, contraception etc. is--to me--part of the problem.
3. The biggest barrier to the kind of automatic obedience, trust, and respect Catholics ought to have for our bishops is, perhaps, the one thing that both should be addressed and is nearly impossible to address: our bishops are strangers to us, for the most part. Sure, in some smaller dioceses, or paradoxically in some larger archdioceses where several auxiliary bishops serve, Catholics may find their bishops approachable, willing and able to spend time in conversation, happy to be involved in the lives of the people in their flocks, and eager to reply to legitimate concerns when these arise. I have, alas, never lived in such a diocese. At this point, I'm truly grateful that my bishop writes a blog (as a priest once said when I admitted to reading it, "It's a great way to know if the bishop is in town or not!") because I can at least read his thoughts and ideas on matters. But if I needed to bring up a problem, I would just look on the diocesan website for the appropriate chancery official and send the letter directly to him or her; there might not be any greater chance of anything happening, but I'd at least be saving the bishop's secretary the task of figuring out who should receive my letter, since the only person who never would, under most circumstances, is the bishop himself. This is not--let me be clear!--the bishop's fault. I can't imagine how he manages to do the half of what he does. It is simply impossible for him to be present to everyone in the diocese, to be father and friend to each Catholic in this large flock. And I imagine this is true for most Catholics in America--yet without any sort of personal relationship to go on, how easy it is to fall into attitudes of suspicion and distrust on both sides! Is it surprising that some bishops cringe when Mr. Average Lay Person approaches, sure that he's going to receive an angry tirade of complaints none of which are really important, only to be deeply surprised and even shocked when Mr. Average Lay Person, the parish finance committee chair, perhaps, is polite, respectful, and hates (and this one is totally hypothetical--I want to be clear) that he has the unpleasant duty of sharing with the bishop the hotel receipts his pastor and the parish secretary racked up on their shared vacation (which, even if platonic, violates the diocese's strict policy against such things)?
I'm not sure what the solutions here are. Prayer, of course. But then?